San Francisco Pizza Safari Part 3

This may have been a trip to California, but there sure was enough “New York Style” pizza to make me double check the time zone. I ran into some great slice shops, notable pie spots, and even a few gnarly piles of goo masquerading as pizza. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights.

Rotten City Pizza is located in a nondescript building in Emeryville, just east of the bay. I had received many tips about this place so I figured it would be worth the long rainy walk from the BART station. The rain dried off as soon as I walked inside and saw the lovely display of freshly baked pies. I saw some beauties, but this was just one stop in an eight pizzeria day so I had to stay focused. I ordered a slice of Margherita and a Funghi (tomato sauce, mozz, provolone, parmigiano, roasted cremini mushrooms, toasted garlic chips). Both slices were excellent, but the Margherita had some lovely structure from a brief reheat. These are some serious “New York Style” slices and I highly recommend stopping by next time you’re in Emeryville looking for some grub. Just check these ladies out:

I tried some other attempts at “New York Style,” which apparently gets translated simply as “pizza-by-the-slice.” Lanesplitter does a pretty grimy version, as does Nizario’s. Both are good for late-night stops but neither require photographic evidence. One the other hand, I do find the need to display a crime against pizza in the form of two college town favorites. Fat Slice and Blondie’s are of the last-resort variety of pizza. I had heard their names bandied about too much to not check them out. Don’t make the same mistake. Here’s what we’re dealing with:  

Not only are these thick slabs of industrial strength cardboard completely flavorless, they’re also $3.50 each! I guess you’re paying for all that cheese, which reminded me more of the rubber soles of my shoes. Wow, I am embarrassed to even put these photos on the same page as Rotten City. Please forgive me.

You can’t talk about “New York Style” pizza in San Francisco without mentioning Escape From New York. With six locations in the Bay Area and a few more in Portland, OR, EFNY puts out some completely passable slices. I went a little stir crazy and ordered a specialty slice on top of my standard cheese slice. Why not? After all, I’m on vacation! Both were good, but the potato and garlic was exciting. The Godfather is ready to dig in!

Moving right along, let’s take a moment to discuss a New York style pie joint that’s new to the scene. Emilia’s is a one man operation where phones are answered, pies are baked and cash is taken by owner Keith Freilich. Using a conventional gas oven, Keith manages to get some nice color that truly welcomes the New York comparisons. It’s also pretty classic that he only accepts cash. Maybe the system will change with the addition of more staff, but it seemed like there was a pretty specific method to ordering pizza. You have to place your order at least an hour in advance, and you are then given a pick-up time. You have the option of sitting at one of the three tables inside, but I took mine to-go. Just take a gander at this baby and you’ll see how serious this pizza scene has become with the addition of Emilia’s. 

In the past few years TONS of quality pizzerias have opened in and around San Francisco. The amazing fact is that there are so many styles to choose from! You’re not stuck with gourmet artisinal blah blah blah, which most east coasters think they’re in for when heading to the Left Coast. There’s a whole landscape happening out west and something tells me it’s just starting to heat up. That about does it for the Bay Area “New York Style” pizza wrap-up, but stay tuned for one more installment from San Francisco before we dive deep into the pits of Los Angeles.

San Francisco Pizza Safari Part 2

They say the best cure for a pizza hangover is more pizza, so Day 3 of my San Francisco pizza bonanza started right where Day 2 left off. The Godfather made a delicious breakfast of leftover focaccia topped with an egg! The most impressive part of the process was when he donned his cheese grating glove, which he has been using ever since “The Incident.” You can draw your own conclusions as to what that means.

After jump-starting the day with focaccia, we rocketed toward our first pizzeria: Pizzetta 211. This place only has four tables, so get there early to avoid the lunch rush. We were lucky because the rain kept our wait time to a minimum. Pizzetta changes its menu to reflect whatever is in season, so don’t expect to see these pies available every time. We went for three pizzas: a Margherita (listed as “tomato, mozzarella, basil”); a pie with house made sausage, green garlic, fingerling potatoes and shaved Parmesan; and one with fresh farm egg, braised fennel, onion, currant and ricotta salata. All three were delicious, but I preferred the sausage pie. I have really come to appreciate good sausage after having too many disappointing “mystery meat” experiences on my recent New Jersey Pizza Patrol trips.

The incredibly high quality toppings on these pies were the star of the show, so I almost wish we picked a funkier pie than the Margherita. But as you can see from the photo below, it was the favorite pizza of the two most adorable pizza pals I met with on the entire trip: Kai and Ming.

I practiced some self-restraint and donated the leftovers to my companions, then hopped into the car and headed North to Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur. This place was recommended to me by a serious pizzanatic and SPT alum named Joe. The best part of taking trips like this is meeting up with the people who told me to visit these pizzerias in the first place! Besides Joe, I was also joined by PizzaHacker and Brian and Ramona (they got engaged on a pizza tour a few months back). More on all these pizza buddies later, but now we’ve gotto get to the PIZZA!

Since there were so many of us, we were able to order more pies to sample. We went with a Margherita, Marinara, Marin (roasted garlic, young organic potato, mozzarella, Parmesan, rosemary oil), Cannondale (house made sausage, roasted peppers, roasted onion, mozzarella and basil) and Surly (hog island clams, tomato sauce, garlic, soppressata, pecorino, parsley, Calabrian chile). Pizzeria Picco is definitely on my list of top Bay Area pizzerias. Unlike many of the other NEOpolitan spots, Picco pays a lot of attention to the crust in both its flavor and texture. They bake in a wood-fired oven using a softer flour than most of the like-minded places I visited in California. The crust is soft and interactive, with plenty of bounce-back in the rim. Toppings are applied very evenly and with great attention to balance as to avoid compromising the other ingredients. I don’t really like to think of these pizzas as having toppings, which usually makes me think of a cheese pizza with a bunch of things on top to substitute flavor that was lacking in the original pizza. Spots like Picco and Pizzetta have instead constructed entirely new structures atop a non-intrusive bread base.

The pizzas are all great and the menu cracks me up (on the bottom it says “Salad on pizza is always OK!”) but you cannot leave without getting some Straus Dairy soft serve with olive oil and sea salt. It is absolutely amazing! If you don’t want olive oil on your soft serve, it’s perfectly acceptable to go with caramel instead. I’m reliving the flavor sensation as I type this. Oh no, I just drooled on my keyboard.

The final stop of Day 3 has been at the top of my list since the moment I started planning. A16 began serving Southern Italian cuisine to San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood in 2004 and continues to appear on everyone’s “must eat” list. We ordered a classic Margherita as our first pie but our second pie selection was a real doozey! There’s an item on the menu called “Trust Your Pizzaiolo” and I knew from the moment I read those words that I just had to try it. It’s my personal philosophy to “play with trust” so this option sounded thrilling! The pie we received was called the Widowmaker: tomato, garlic, dry chili, fried Calabrian chile, panchetta, sausage, mozzarella, grana padano and arugula. WHOA!!!!! Yes, seriously a rad pie. Just like Picco, the pizza here sticks closer to the Neapolitan tradition. Just check out all those blisters caused by radiant heat off the dome of A16’s wood-fired oven! Definitely a great end to a thrilling pizza day.

Day 4 begins with a bang: Chez Panisse. San Francisco takes a lot of pride in its food, having developed a real appreciation for fresh and locally sourced foods. While heavyweights like Wolfgang Puck often get the credit for applying this concept to pizza, the true source is Alice Waters. Established in 1971, Chez Panisse represents the origin of California cuisine. Their menu changes seasonally but there is always a pizza on the list. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce the thick smoked bacon, egg, parsley pizza…

Simple. Elegant. Classy. After eating pizza at Chez Panisse, I can see very clearly how spots like Pizzetta 211 came to be. Even though I enjoyed the pizza at Waters-derived restaurants more than those at their origin point, they only stand on the shoulders of a giant. Before we split, there was just enough time to eat a glorious apple-cherry tart and the BEST ice cream I have ever had. I know you can’t taste it by licking your screen, but we also eat with our eyes.

The next pizzeria is the complete opposite of Chez Panisse. Every time I have guests on the tour from the Bay Area, they all recommend Zachary’s for Chicago style pizza. I’m not a big fan of deep dish, but I just had to see what all the hoopla was about. Sure enough, it was the real deal! These pies are so THICK they have to be cut with a machete. And they take about forty minutes to bake in the revolving deck oven, which spin pies around as if they were riding a Ferris wheel. It’s so cool!

The crust is actually much thinner than I anticipated, with tomato taking up most of the vertical real estate. I can see why there’s so much of it, since the tomato is incredibly tart and tangy and delicious. The big difference between deep dish and other styles is the crumbly, biscuit-like consistency of the crust. You have to cut it with a fork and knife and the last bit really snaps when you break through the final barrier of bread. It’s something altogether different and deserves respect, even though it is not my personal favorite.

There are still two more days of Bay Area pizza to report PLUS a Los Angeles pizza roundup so stay tuned for more hot pizza action!

San Francisco Pizza Safari Part 1

Over the course of 14 days this Winter, I ate at 50 pizzerias on the West Coast. My first stop was Phoenix, where I finally had the opportunity to visit the heralded Pizzeria Bianco as well as seven other curious pizza destinations. You can check out my Phoenix findings in this earlier post.

The second stop on my two-week binge was a big one. I dedicated six days to visiting as many San Francisco Bay Area pizzerias (and historic bakeries) as possible. When the smoke cleared, I had hit about thirty spots! Some were good, some were great, others need not be mentioned. One thing is for certain: San Francisco is currently one of the most exciting pizza towns in the country.

I was pretty excited when The Godfather picked me up from the airport and immediately asked me which pizzerias we were heading to first. We dropped of my bags and headed straight for Pizzeria Delfina. Once inside, we spotted a pair of open seats at the end of the bar. Not only did we have a perfect view of the prep area, but we also had access to the lovely staff. Unlike many pizzerias, the Delfina crew were extremely well-informed about their products and had no problem discussing them. We ordered two pizzas, a Margherita and special pie with spek, green garlic, pecorino, and agliato. Both were lovely, especially the speck pie (sorry, I ate a slice before taking a photo)

The Margherita was nice and creamy, with soft fruity flavors thanks to their excellent choice of olive oil. Notice how nice the char is on the corniccione. But these guys aren’t using an imported Neapolitan Vesuvian-ash-lined piece of eye candy, they’re baking these bad boys in a Marsal & Sons brick-lined deck oven (manufactured in beautiful Lindenhurst, Long Island). As much as I love wood-burners, the folks at Delfina don’t need to rely on one to kick their pies up to the next level.

Following the advice of a Delfina crew member, we topped off our delicious pizza meal with a slice at Arinell Pizza. This is a funky little slice shop just around the corner from Delfina (and Bi-ite Ice Cream). The pies sitting in the display case were HUGE and SQUARISH. I asked about the shape of the pizza, but the pie mad just said they always come out different. Fair enough. I thoroughly enjoyed my slice at Arinell. The crust was pretty thin but not at all floppy and I loved the way the cheese and sauce combined to form a blanket of deliciousness.  Really solid slice shop!

The evening took us to a pair of pizzerias that couldn’t be any more different. We first tried to get into Flour + Water but there was a 3 hour wait. YIKES! So we put our names on the list and did what any normal pizza lover would do: we drove across town to Little Star, known for their deep-dish Chicago style pies. The wait was only 45 minutes, so we reserved our table AND put in our order for one “Little Star” with added sausage and one small cheese pizza. This step was essential because Little Star’s deep dish pizza can take upwards of 40 minutes to bake. Both pies had the biscuit-like buttery crust essential in deep dish pizza, as well as a sweet, chunky layer of tomato on the surface. Cheese plays the essential role of protecting the crust from the tomato’s dangerous moisture. My apologies for the bad photo, but San Francisco apparently has a rule about keeping restaurant lighting levels dangerously low.

Thanks to our early pizza order at Little Star, we made it to Flour + Water just in time for our 10:30 reservation. The place was still packed and we had just enough room left for two pies: a Margherita and a Cozze – white wine braised mussels, potato, torpedo onion & green garlic. Both were tasty, but I enjoyed the toppings more than the crust. This pizzeria (and Delfina) are part of a strong NEOpolitan trend in San Francisco. The pizza is based on that of Naples, but with a twist. The whole idea of Neapolitan pizza is that the ingredients and methods are exact to the specifications of Neapolitan tradition. NEOpolitan pizza instead uses local ingredients to inspire creative topping combinations atop a 12” personal-sized crust. I’m a big fan of this trend, which includes fantastic New York pizzerias like Roberta’s, Franny’s and Co.

Day 2 of my safari began in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach at Tony’s Pizzeria Napoletana. The first thing you need to know about this pizzeria is that it is MUCH more than just Neapolitan pizza. In fact, this is one of the most versatile pizzerias I have ever visited because their menu isn’t restricted to a single pizza style. The first pizza we ordered was the Margherita Limited Edition. Tony won the World Pizza Cup in Naples with this pie in 2007 and he only makes 73 of these every day, so get yours early! The dough is mixed by hand, using San Felice Flour, and then proofed in Neapolitan wooden boxes before being dressed with the typical Neapolitan fare (DOP tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, EVOO) and jumping into a hot wood-burning oven. The pie is delicious!

But the wood-burning oven isn’t alone. Tony also has an electric oven that was used to bake our Pizza Romana, a thin white pizza consisting of a three course meal on a single crust. The antipasta section of this pie has cherry tomatoes, black olives, basil and garlic on a thin bed of mozzarella. Next up is the main course, with salami picanti, arugula, parmigiano and mozzarella. Dessert may have been my favorite part, with its delicate combination of prosciutto, Gorgonzola and sweet fig preserve. This is one serious pie!

But the crowd favorite may have been the Original NJ Tomato Pie, baked in Tony’s Marsal & Sons brick-lined deck oven. I’m a proud NJ native and I stand by my motherland’s distinctive brand of pizza (check the Munchmobile posts) so it means a lot when I say I loved this pizza. Just like the pies at NJ tomato pie HQ DeLorenzo’s (Tony’s is more like Hamilton Ave than Hudson Street/Robbinsville), the tomato pie at Tony’s has a dense crust with creamy aged mozzarella topped with a healthy portion of bright-fruity-delicious crushed tomato. It’s a real winner and I hope people who aren’t familiar with the Trenton, NJ tomato pie purveyors give it a test drive.

There you have it, a pizzeria with three ovens and (at least) three unique ways of baking pizza. The menu also contains regional specialties such as New York Sicilian, New Haven Clam, Stromboli and calzones, as well as pastas and salads. It’s an impressive menu that is extremely well executed, but what I like most about Tony’s is the level of pizza education built into the experience. You can order a variety of styles and read about the unique production methods right there on your menu! History and tradition are part of the Tony’s Pizzeria Napoletana experience, but the proof is in the pizza.

If pizza history is your jam, you simply cannot miss the oldest pizzeria on the West Coast: Tomasso’s. Also located in San Francisco’s North Beach section, Tomasso’s is packed within minutes of its 5 PM opening. The restaurant is small, probably about 60 seats, and the pizza oven is visible from every point in the room. The vibe is super cozy and I would definitely recommend it for families interested in a real Italian dining experience.

Since we were seated before the place was packed, I scored a few shots inside the 1935 wood-burning oven. Unlike the flat-topped coal-fired brick ovens of this era, Tomasso’s oven is domed for better heat distribution.

The pizza was decent but the star of the show was the calzone. Baked in the cooler part of the brick oven, our calzone was filled with a simple mix of ricotta and mozzarella. It reminded me of similar baked calzones at  John’s of Bleecker Street (Manhattan) and Sam’s on Court Street (Brooklyn). Notice how it’s literally a folded pizza (minus the sauce). Awesome!

As if this wasn’t enough for one day, we decided to hit one more pizzeria to cap off the night. Our last spot was Gialina, a pizzeria that falls into the NEOpolitan category that seems to be so popular about town. So popular, indeed, that they each boast 2+ hour wait times. That proved to be an asset for us, since the day had already seen quite a bit of pizza (not to mention some incredible focaccia that will be highlighted in a future post or the dim sum that will not be mentioned) so we needed the time to get amped up.

We ordered four pies at Gialina, each of which sported a curious crust. While most pizzerias aim for a charred underside, these guys kept theirs pretty pale and caked with flour. I really enjoyed the crust, as it dared to be different with its pastry-like texture.

I absolutely adored the Atomica (tomato sauce, mushrooms, mozzarella, chilies & red onions). It was simple, yet zesty! I liked it so much, I had a second slice. That’s a big deal when you’re spending the entire day sampling pizzerias! I really love the simplicity of this pie and its lack of cheese was much appreciated.

The night officially ended with our remaining morsels getting the old box treatment, but I caught wind of a major pizza event happening on the streets of San Francisco and had to see it with my own eyes. Jeff Krupman or, as his followers know him, “Pizza Hacker” modified his backyard Weber grill to be suitable for wood-induced fires reaching over 800 degrees F and bakes outstanding Neapolitan pies without the confining walls of a restaurant. You can only find Pizza Hacker by tracking him on his website or via twitter, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Jeff is the real deal. He uses tomatoes that he picked/canned himself, a dough recipe that’s constantly evolving, an oven that is always being tweaked and rebuilt and a really cool head lamp. One of Jeff’s most radical innovations is his use of smoked salt around the circumference of the pizza, resulting in a truly unique crust that differentiates itself from the rest of the pie. It’s really outstanding, definitely one of my favorite pies in the entire Bay Area. Check out this video for the legit scoop.

The Pizza Hacker adventure capped off Day 2 of my San Francisco pizza safari beautifully. Stay tuned for at least two more SF installments PLUS a rundown of my Los Angeles pizza safari.